Andrew Grice: No fireworks but Alistair stands up at last

Share
Related Topics

Just over two years ago, friends warned Alistair Darling that he was seen as "an appendage of Gordon Brown" and he had to break free if he were to have credibility as Chancellor.

The Treasury still bears the embarrassing scars from Mr Darling's debut, his 2007 pre-Budget report (PBR), when Mr Brown ordered him to copy a Tory pledge to cut inheritance tax because he was about to call a general election. It was too late to withdraw it when the election was shelved because the documents were at the printers.

Yesterday, Mr Darling finally became his own man in what is likely to be his final Budget. The word in Whitehall was this was "Darling's Budget".

Mr Brown was closely involved, as was Lord Mandelson, but there was less pre-Budget tension in Downing Street than usual. But while some ministers want Mr Darling to remain at the Treasury if Labour retains power, Mr Brown may have other ideas.

Yesterday's Budget was never going to be a vote-winner. Stuffed with goodies, it would have self-destructed in the City, doing political harm rather than good. So Mr Darling had a weak hand and had to present a neutral package. Any fireworks will be let off in Labour's election manifesto. The Cabinet has resolved to make it the most radical ever but translating rhetoric into reality is easier said than done after 13 years in power.

Some election dividing lines became clearer yesterday. Labour claims it has a "plan for economic recovery" which the Tories could not afford because they would start cut to spending this year. Labour would intervene in the economy in the good times as well as an emergency like the recession; the failed free market would rule OK under the Tories.

With the recovery still fragile, one Cabinet minister defined the election choice as "responsibility" under Labour versus the "risk" of the Tories.

The Tories, of course, see things very differently, attacking an "empty Budget" lacking the energy, leadership and ideas that only a change of government can bring. They accuse Labour of putting off the big decisions on spending until after the election.

Tax was the elephant in the Commons chamber yesterday. Mr Darling managed to raise taxes by freezing allowances without mentioning it. But he said something that will assume much greater importance during the election: "I have no further announcements on VAT, on income tax, or national insurance rates."

Mr Brown and Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, blocked a Treasury plan to announce a rise in VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent in the December PBR. Instead the Government opted for a 1 per cent increase in national insurance contributions a year from now.

That cleared the ground for Labour to warn that an incoming Tory Government would hike VAT to 20 per cent – which it might well do, blaming the move on its inheritance from Labour. Treasury orthodoxy holds Mr Darling back from ruling out a VAT rise in the next parliament. Ministers will not feel so constrained when they have left their Whitehall offices and hit the campaign trail.

Expect Labour posters of George Osborne dressed as "Vatman", repeating a trick it played on Norman Lamont, the Tory Chancellor who imposed VAT on domestic fuel.

With the honourable exception of the Liberal Democrats, the main parties are still being deliberately vague about specific cuts. Labour's hastily-put-together £11bn package of "savings" relied on our old friend efficiency savings. The Tories claim that leaves more than £20bn of cuts to be found by Labour in the full-scale spending review conveniently delayed until after the election.

The ball is in the Tories' court. They have promised more detail of where they would cut before the election. Their priority is to halt next year's national insurance rise – and make sure their sums add up. But they do not want to shoot themselves in both feet by announcing unpopular cuts or tax rises before polling day. So it suits the big two parties to talk about "when" to cut, whereas the voters surely deserve to know more about the "what".

No clash in the Commons: Labour's colour co-ordinated front bench is nicely turned out for the Chancellor

Was a message circulated among Labour MPs on Tuesday night stipulating a dress code for Budget Day? If so it would have said: "wear purple". That was the couleur du jour for Team Darling.

The Chancellor was flanked and backed by cadres of purple warriors, six within touching distance. There was Harriet Harman in a suit to his right, the purple-tied Prime Minister to his left, Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper in a natty pink/purple number, while Darling's own tie was blue with prancing purple dolphins.

The colour is hardly flattering on the complexion, but it has been lent kudos courtesy of the world's First Wives: Michelle Obama wore a royal purple shift when her husband secured the Democratic nomination, Carla Bruni was coated in sleek purple for President Sarkozy's state visit to Britain and SamCam has been sporting a purple top over her baby bump. Labour may hope to capture its connotations of authority and entitlement, something the Tories are anxious to avoid.

Historically, purple signifies status, worn by emperors and senators, medieval kings and the Pope. Purple is of course created by mixing red and blue – a sartorial prefiguration of a hung parliament? Or maybe Labour's red and blue clothes just got mixed up in the wash.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker